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Despite gains, when it comes to gender equality in the workplace, Milwaukee still has a way to go. Local women share their stories and strategies, and why they are hopeful for the future.

women in the workplace

Rose Spano Iannelli; photo by Kat Schleicher

“You are just too pretty to advance in my organization.” The words, coming from the CEO of a Milwaukee stock brokerage company, derailed a promising career and still sting today, says Rose Spano Iannelli. She was one of two women working in the company, the environment of which echoed “Mad Men”: martini lounges, cigar smoke, misogyny and all. But this wasn’t 1960s New York – this was late ‘80s Milwaukee.

Iannelli had been working at the medium-sized firm for just over two years in customer service, having been drawn there by a strong interest in money management. She told no one at the company about the comment, as she imagined they would think it was a compliment; women like being told they are pretty, don’t they?

Iannelli barely spoke about this incident for nearly 30 years, until she began mentoring young professional women as an executive recruiter. She talks about it now, she says, to illustrate the impact words have on women’s lives. Just two weeks after the fateful comment, she quit. It was too hurtful to continue. No matter how hard she worked to move up the ranks, she realized, the fact of her gender formed an obstacle that was, in many ways, insurmountable. Call it gender bias, a glass ceiling or just plain sexism; whatever the term, it’s something that is still faced by many Milwaukee women in the workforce today.

While outright discrimination like what Iannelli experienced seems to be less common, other equally insidious factors – gender bias, an insular male executive network and lack of flexibility in the workplace – continue to prevent today’s women from advancing toward top leadership positions, especially in large corporations.

Julia Taylor, the first female president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, has partnered with Milwaukee Women Inc. and studied the status of local women in the workplace for years. “If you look at how many women are in C-suite roles, it’s a small number, and it’s even less for people of color,” Taylor says.

Wisconsin and Milwaukee lag behind in the number of women-owned businesses, placing 38th out of 50 states for percentage growth in the number of these businesses in the United States, trailing every state in the upper Midwest. The city is also behind in its gender pay gap and in the representation of women at executive levels.

women in the workplace

Source: Milwaukee Women inc 2017 Measuring Change research report


Should pay equity progress at its current rate, the gender wage gap in Wisconsin will close in 2067, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. By then, flying cars could be soaring down North Avenue with the Oriental Theatre replaced by a virtual reality arena. Jokes aside, Wisconsin women make 78 cents to a man’s dollar.

In Milwaukee in particular, women make 79 cents to every man’s dollar, slightly under the national average of 80 cents. This gap amounts to a $10,433 loss for women annually, bringing the average annual income for females to $40,048, versus $50,481 for men.

There is some good news: Efforts by organizations such as Milwaukee Women Inc. have had a positive impact, resulting in a 10 percent increase in the number of women on executive boards locally, though that advance got us only to the national median. And, according to Taylor, women are increasingly becoming involved with manufacturing companies in Milwaukee.

The city was ranked 14th out of all major metropolitan areas for opportunities for women in technology positions by a 2017 survey by SmartAsset. The survey noted that Milwaukee women hold 30 percent of the city’s 10,000 mathematics, technology and computer science jobs, higher compared with the competition. And the gender wage gap for those positions is a narrow 3 percent.

Organizations such as the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC) also set up shop in town, providing small business loans and business education to women, people of color and the poor. WWBIC loans are responsible for many beloved additions to the city, such as Purple Door Ice Cream.

Milwaukee’s size and accessibility also give it an edge, allowing women to form tight-knit networks that connect them with mentors and new job openings. Emily Phillips, a financial advisor at Baird who moved here from the East Coast, feels she could not have achieved the same success had she remained coastal.

“If you are a young woman working in Milwaukee, you are one or two phone calls away from whoever you want to talk to if you are thoughtful and disciplined in how you approach it,” Phillips says. “I would have had a much harder time building my network and not found nearly as much success early on in my career if I had chosen to work in Boston.”


women in the workplace

Mary Dowell; photo by Aliza Baran

In most any city in the United States, the obstacles facing women in the workplace are compounded for women of color. Milwaukee is no different.

Upon entering the workforce, Mary Dowell knew that she would have half as many opportunities and face more barriers than her white female counterparts. But those barriers did not stop Dowell from rising through the ranks in human resources to eventually become vice president of foundation affairs and global community relations at Johnson Controls. Dowell, who’s black, faced down discrimination with the attitude that with perseverance and a lot of hard work, she would succeed.

“I’ve had my share of obstacles,” she says, chuckling sans amusement. “One of the consistent things was trying to make sure I had a seat at the table. There were decisions being made that were not always open to me. I was not always welcome, so I made myself welcome.”

Dowell would go to her supervisor, ask him why she was not being invited to meetings where important decisions were made, and illustrate her value through examples of the exceptional work she had been completing. Her tactic worked. Still, she never stopped taking a proactive stance; she felt she never could.

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Dowell’s persistence was more than warranted, what with African American women in Wisconsin being paid 61 cents per every white man’s dollar. Latina women in Wisconsin fare worse, making 53 cents per dollar. Asian women fare slightly better, earning 65 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.

After leaving Johnson Controls in 2015, Dowell now works as a consultant, providing leadership counseling to young men and women. She also published a book, Playing through the Fence, part memoir and part collection of stories from a diverse group of (mostly) Milwaukee women who endured obstacles in their personal and professional lives. “There needs to be equal passion for women of color too,” Dowell says. “What I’ve seen is that we can get this passion for moving women forward, and then people of color are often forgotten.”


women in the workplace

Source: Milwaukee Women inc 2017 Measuring Change research report

When the East Coast transplant Emily Phillips entered the business world, she started playing golf. She realized that more deals take place on the golf course than in the boardroom, so instead of sitting around in the office while decisions were being made on the fairways, Phillips hit the links. She is now a head financial advisor at Baird.

Phillips was able to infiltrate the “Old Boys Club,” the male network that is one of the main reasons for the gender disparities in wages and advancement. Research suggests that women have a harder time moving up the pipeline because people, i.e. men, whether intentionally or unintentionally, hire what they know. If a man has always occupied a certain role, they think it best that another man be hired into that role. Due to the fateful comment made by a stock brokerage executive, Rose Spano Iannelli, now an executive recruiter, knows this club all too well.

“The executive culture in Milwaukee is elitist and male-dominated,” Iannelli says. “It used to be, and in some ways still is, a country club network that creates an insular workforce because they rely on that network.”

Count female behavior as another often-cited reason for gender disparities, particularly how women tend not to negotiate their salary or speak up when they feel they deserve a raise. Given the insular network and lack of female leadership, is it surprising that women may be apprehensive in these areas?

“I don’t believe there are enough (women) leaders at the top to pull aspiring women leaders through,” says Judge Kristy Yang, a local trailblazer who recently became the first female Hmong-American judge in the United States. “Thus, no matter how much training is available and received by women, the opportunities may not be there.”

However, Yang contends that there are several groups in Milwaukee that encourage the rise of female public office candidates and that there are several women-only organizations aimed at supporting their members’ professional growth. Phillips also believes that the insular male network can be broken through by women basing their performance on concrete mathematical measures, such as how much your work helps increase the bottom line.

But despite ways women have found to navigate existing barriers, it is difficult working in a male-dominated field where there is no one like you. Research has shown, too, that there are more entrenched forces at play in gender disparities than insular networks and a lack of negotiation, and it all begins with the stereotype of the woman’s “traditional” roles in the household: the mother and the caretaker.


Jeanne Paré, one of the founding members of the women’s networking group Professional Dimensions, entered the workforce when it was still okay for employers to ask women how many more children they intended to have. Granted, this was the 1970s, and such questions have been outlawed now, but Paré argues that ideas around working mothers are more subtle now, but still there.

Mothers have a larger wage gap than women overall, making 71 cents for every dollar paid to fathers, with single mothers being paid only 58 cents of what fathers make. Research suggests that this is due to the attitude that mothers are less concerned about their jobs and should be home with their children. The corporate environment also does not allow for flexibility in caring for children, as Lori Richards, president of Mueller Communications, realized when working with Milwaukee corporations.

“The traditional rules of a corporate environment don’t allow the freedom or flexibility to meet the needs of mothers, or if they do, it’s still somewhat frowned upon,” Richards says. “There are corporate environments where you don’t talk about your family or your kids because as a woman; you might then be perceived as weak, or you might be perceived as not having your eye on the ball when it comes to your business goals.”

Rules regarding breastfeeding in the office, as well as the U.S. and Wisconsin’s six-week maternity leave policies – dramatically lower than most of the developed world – also make it difficult for women to balance their families and careers. Women face the perception that they will drop out of the workforce after having kids. But research shows that only about 10 percent of highly educated women are out of the workforce due to having children at any given time, with over 90 percent of these women intending to return. A study from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis even showed that mothers were more productive at work than women without children.

But even women without children face the unconscious biases that are at the core of issues mothers face. These biases do not bode well for women, according to Krista Brookman of Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to advance workplace inclusion for women.

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“Catalyst research shows that the stereotype that men ‘take charge’ and women ‘take care’ puts women leaders in a ‘double bind’ that can potentially undermine their leadership and career advancement options,” Brookman says. “Women suffer ‘Goldilocks’ syndrome. They are judged as being too hard, too soft and never just right for the job.”

Because of these unconscious biases, Brookman says, women can be considered “too nice” to be promoted to a leadership level, and those who make it face an extra amount of scrutiny about their experience, likability and even appearance. Young women also are sometimes considered ticking time bombs who will leave the workplace the minute they have a child. Women who break these gender norms, i.e. female leaders in the workplace, are deemed aggressive and pushy for demanding the respect that is given to their male peers.

A recent study out of Stanford University also showed that men are far more likely to critique females for “coming on too strong” and attribute their success to external factors and luck rather than their individual triumphs and abilities. Because of this, women have to prove themselves again and again in the workplace, and even if they do, they tend to be assigned to more operational roles than strategic ones, which signals that they have lower potential.

And laws in Wisconsin are lacking to help women navigate the landmines created by unconscious bias and male networks. The state does not have laws forcing state contractors to comply with nondiscrimination laws or prohibiting retaliation or discrimination against employees who discuss their wages, though case law protects such discussions. The state’s Equal Pay Enforcement and Transparency Acts, which allowed women to appeal to state courts for being paid less than their male equals, were repealed in 2011.

Many companies in Milwaukee continue to have overwhelmingly male-dominated leadership, particularly in law and engineering. Companies lauded as progressive when it comes to gender inclusion, such as Johnson Controls, have only a few women in top executive roles.


Despite this dismal gender representation, Jennifer Dirks, president of the women’s networking group TEMPO Milwaukee, is hopeful. She, like many others, believes that changes in gender disparities start with leadership, with male CEOs realizing that they need to cultivate more women leaders. Male leaders in Milwaukee, she says, are starting to realize this.

“Executives are starting to have conversations about why they need women at the top,” Dierks says. “We’ve held round tables with them about the makeup of their teams, and found that they are aware of their lack of female representation, but when it comes to hiring for executives, they have a male candidate that fits the criteria just as well as the female candidate, so they go with what they know.”

Another often-mentioned solution for breaking down gender barriers is mentorship and sponsorship, having people to advocate for women and show them the ropes about navigating a male-dominated workplace. Rose Spano Iannelli believes
that mentorship can help solve the problem of visibility, that good female candidates are not known within the insular male networks of top corporations.

On an individual level, Emily Phillips offers two strategies for women to push past gender barriers: Set clear expectations about what high performance means in your specific position, and develop an informal network. Phillips sets clear expectations by having all promotions depend on specific mathematical performance measures, a practice she argues can be applied to all professions.

Lori Richards believes that the workplace needs to be changed systematically to be more accommodating to women in order to respond to the demands of motherhood that they are often saddled with. This, she says, can be done through flexibility in the process
of work, for example allowing for flexible hours and days worked from home.

Additionally, research has shown that unconscious gender bias training in the workplace is largely ineffective; hiring practices seem to lend themselves better to reducing gender disparities. Including more women in the pool of finalists, for example, was shown by a 2016 study to improve immensely the chances of a woman being hired. Gender-blind hiring can also improve female representation (though studies disagree on that), and simply including the words “salary negotiable” in a job description has reduced the pay gap for new hires by 50 percent.

If these solutions are put in place in Milwaukee, gender disparities for professional women may begin to go away. This, combined with how the Old Boys Club may be disappearing due to aging male executives, promises, at the very least, a reluctantly hopeful future where the workplace is equal and welcoming to men and to women of any color or sexual orientation.

Iannelli, who has firsthand experience of the harm of the Old Boys Club, is hopeful too. Though she still refuses to speak the name of the company where she was told she was too pretty to advance, due to the embarrassment she still feels after 30 years, she tells her story to inform young girls of how they may be treated and of the detrimental effects of sexism, so that they can rise above. Richards is similarly hopeful, and she contends the Old Boys Club is dying.

“You look around the city where the number one person may currently be a man, but the number two is a woman, and there will come a time in the next two years or five years when she becomes the leader,” Richards says. “I think we’re at the cusp in Milwaukee where women will take over powerful positions in our community, and that’s really exciting to me.” ◆


Tune in to WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” Nov. 13 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.


‘Look How Far We Haven’t Come’ appears in the November 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning October 30, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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